A Cinema of Cruelty?

Looking beyond the clichéd portrait of a frivolous, voluble Eric Rohmer
by Charlotte Garson  posted January 15, 2010
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With the announcement of Eric Rohmer's death, the entire French press inevitably resorted to its recurrent epithets: "badinage," "frivolity," and "young girls." Admittedly, for film critics, this was often a way of refuting the unearned reputation of a Rohmerian filmography devoted to lovers' playful banter. But here, too, lay a form of suggestion by omission: despite their denials and their desire to embrace the complexity of a filmmaker whose career ranged from Charlotte and Her Steak (1951) to The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), and however much these critics claim that Rohmer was "much more" than a Marivaux of the seventh art, they never really tell us why. This omission helped to reinforce French "anti-Rohmer" irritation: the so French aspect of his movies, much appreciated by American and Japanese cinephiles, is considered by his French critics as a mix of affected diction (Arielle Dombasle, Fabrice Luchini), philosophical digressions (on Blaise Pascal in My Night at Maud's and A Tale of Winter or Immanuel Kant in A Tale of Springtime), and sentimental reversals (the comings and goings of Pascale Ogier between Paris and the suburbs in Full Moon in Paris, the hesitations of Gaspard in A Summer's Tale and of Magali in Autumn Tale).

This portrait of a frivolous and voluble Rohmer, loudly refuted yet never supplanted in the obituaries, does not stand up to the scope and variety of his movies. By revisiting the cycles ("The Moral Tales," "Comedies and Proverbs," "Tales of the Four Seasons"), the costume-films trend inaugurated by The Marquise of O, such stand-alone works as Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, or even the pedagogical documentaries like Les Jeux de société, we realize how Rohmer's work and his cinematic philosophy remain unique and perfectly coherent.

To understand this, we should recall the words of Pascal Bonitzer, former Cahiers du cinéma critic (as was Rohmer himself, the co-editor in chief between 1957 and 1963) and author of the best Rohmerian monograph1: in Rohmer's movies, Bonitzer writes, "transparency is, so to speak, the mask of opacity." This transparency is first and foremost visual, the work of Nestor Almendros from 1966 to 1976—a talented cinematographer of color, subsequently employed by Truffaut. This transparency leaves the viewer with a memory of light. The camera movements are minimalistic; the contrasts are not garish nor are the compositions gaudy; and yet, in shot after shot, an implacable geometry is established. (Rohmer's passion for urban planning and geometric diagonals is explicit in his short film for TV Métamorphoses du paysage and apparent in the backgrounds of Full Moon in Paris and Boyfriends and Girlfriends.)

Rohmer's transparency is also characterized by a production system close to being deliberately amateur. In this respect, it is essential to see the making-of documentary of A Summer's Tale2 by Françoise Etchegaray (his closest collaborator) and Jean-André Fieschi (the late Cahiers critic). On the shores of Brittany, what is Rohmer doing while shooting? He excavates. Watch him remove piles of seaweed from a beach at low tide or the giant garbage bin that obstructs the frame, and shoo away the passers-by on a crowded beach. Watch him run toward Aurélia Nolin (Léna) after a lovers' break-up scene, or hanging from a tree between two shots in a forest: the Rohmerian trait revealed in this making-of is not the well-oiled mechanics of literary dialogue—an enduring cliché—but physical energy. And yet, despite all this physical activity, the bystanders fail to see him as the filmmaker; to them he remains transparent. We can even hear someone say off-screen: "I say, they've got some nerve, they could have hired someone younger to pull the dolly!"

Finally, his transparency resides in his dialogue, which constitutes the real backbone of his films. Rohmer first writes the dialogue, even before there is any storyline, in order to create the characters: even when the characters suffer or conceal, they are always able to clearly express their thoughts and sentiments. This is reinforced by his exclusive use of direct sound (once this was technologically available).

But what is Rohmer filming when he films a conversation? Not a dialogue, as in a screenplay, but an action. Filmed speech is continuously complicated or even undermined by body language, spatial movements in a particular place. In A Summer's Tale, when Margot hovers around Gaspard, who confides in her at the shore, the absence of shot/reverse shot sets up a game of hide-and-seek whereby Margot always ends up beside Gaspard within the frame, then is outside the frame, to end up again beside Gaspard. This example (others can be found throughout his works, for example in Claire's Knee) refutes the idea of a merely "written" cinema: "My cinema, you say, is literary," Rohmer wrote to a critic in 1971. "[However] what I ‘say,' I don't say it in words. Nor do I say it in images, with all due respect to the sectarians of a purist cinema, which should 'speak' with its images just as a deaf-mute speaks with the hands. Basically, I do not say, I show. I show persons who act and speak."3

Rohmer's genius lies within the junction or the disjunction between words and images and in what turns out to be a third thing altogether: the action of speaking. When, at the end of Astrea and Celadon, Astrea recognizes her young lover, whom she thought was dead, in girl's clothing, he is "resuscitated" solely by the power of her words: "Live, live Celadon, I command you to live!" Her words are enough to bring back to life, at dawn, this lover whom she had dismissed and pushed to suicide with her jealous words. In Rohmer's films, speech is never dreary banter; on the contrary, it is action, almost to the point of becoming performative.

But what of the fiery speech of Marion (Arielle Dombasle), who in Pauline at the Beach delivers a long monologue on true love which sounds all but performative? With her heart-shaped, sensual mouth and her restless hands, Marion mentions her desire to "burn," to be "consumed by love," using a lexicon about fire borrowed from the Racine tragedies. By focusing on the stubborn silence of her adolescent niece Pauline, who listens to her but refuses to speak of her own love life, Rohmer is discreetly poking at the illusive plenitude of Marion's discourse. In cutting away to Pauline, he creates a dissociation from Marion's passionate words and casts a humorous gaze on the character, without ridiculing her. This is undoubtedly the greatest strength of his cinema: to use the camera lens—the specificity of the film medium—as a tool of non-empathy.

To what extent is Rohmer's focus on basic shooting mechanics subversive? In this respect, strange as it may seem, his method can be compared with that of Frederick Wiseman: they are both savant and simple, masters of a transparent architecture. Both rely on the distance imposed by the camera so as to avoid what Roland Barthes called the empoissement ("stickiness") of the gaze. Wiseman never claimed that the people he filmed in his documentaries were not lying, but if they did lie, he could always film this lie in action; likewise, Rohmer adjusts, with diabolical precision, the distance that separates him from the discourse of his characters. Another quote, from the period when Rohmer was a young film critic, comes to mind: "One does not lie often enough in films, except perhaps in comedies.... So as to weaken or control the fearsome power of speech, one must not, as formerly believed, render its meaning indifferent but deceitful." 

Almost 60 years later, Rohmer the moralist pursues this escape from the power of speech with his toughest film, Triple Agent. It's the story of an espionage incident in 1930's France during the Popular Front, constructed as a ricochet of words: Is Fiodor a spy for Tsarist Russia or for the USSR? The spectator does not see him "do" anything but hears him speak—to his neighbors, to his cousin, and above all to his Greek wife, Arsinoé, to whom he gracefully and lovingly justifies the necessity of his omissions. His theory of falsehood will eventually cause the death of Arsinoé; she is arrested (and will die in prison) after he mysteriously disappears. 

But the cruelest aspect of Triple Agent is the way we suddenly learn at the end of the film that the couple's cozy and intimate apartment was rigged with microphones; and the way a voiceover intrudes, at the end of a story that was an interlacing of muffled dialogues between the spouses, to state facts drawn from legal reports. By introducing the cold "voice" of the law at the end of his film, Rohmer performs a radical gesture, as violent as that of the chief who cuts the rope that binds the swimmer to his boat at the end of Murnau's Tabu. He "releases" an innocent into History; he frees himself, the author, from all narrative authority, thus anticipating the immense treachery that constitutes the historical offscreen event of Triple Agent: the imminent Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

What Rohmer was quick to grasp, and what accounts for his singularity, is the constitutive ambiguity of the "point of view" in film—the impossibility, when filming, of occupying an attributable place, a fate both fortunate and cruel. Or, as Bonitzer would say, the filmmaker's singular fate of being both transparent and masked. A cinema of frivolity? Rather a cinema of cruelty, but in the stark summer light: "On neither the sun, nor death, can a man look fixedly," wrote another great French moralist, La Rochefoucauld. Triple Agent closes with a terse, legal, "she is dead," which casts the coldest possible gaze upon a love story. Wrongly dismissed from the New Wave by some as a "classicist," triple-agent Rohmer coined a unique variation on the most famous of modernist cinematic tropes. In his films, Harriet Andersson's or Jean-Paul Belmondo's stark stare into the lens is cruelly reversed onto the protagonists and onto the narrative itself.

1. Eric Rohmer, Cahiers du cinéma, Auteurs series, 1991 and 1999.

2. La Fabrique du conte d'été. Available in the French « pedagogical » DVD edition of A Summer's Tale, L'Eden cinéma, CNDP.

3. « Lettre à un critique (à propos des Contes moraux) », Nouvelle Revue Française, 219, Mars 1971, reprinted in The Taste for Beauty, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge Studies in Film, 1990.

4. « Pour un cinéma parlant », Les Temps modernes, 1948, reprinted in The Taste for Beauty, op. cit.

Translated from French by Maura Lee and Marion Miclet.

This article inaugurates a series of translated critical essays and interviews that will appear periodically on Moving Image Source. 


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Eric Rohmer on the set of his film The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
Photo Gallery: A Cinema of Cruelty?


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Charlotte Garson is a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma and a member of its editorial board. She is the author of an essay for young cinephiles (Amoureux, 2007) and of the books Jean Renoir (2008) and Le Cinéma hollywoodien (2008) and heads the film pages of the French cultural monthly Etudes. She also produces radio documentaries for France Culture.

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